Every once in a while, when I wander into a supermarket, I find the same old comforting brands, the ones to which we are so accustomed. Honey Nut Cheerios, Maxwell House, Reynolds Wrap, Heinz, Erewhon (for California people). What’s amazing is that these same reliable brands that have been around for 30, 40, and 50 years somehow manage to carry that magic “n” word. The whole psychological torah of using words that sell is a lucrative one. The right sounds and the proper formulations are critical. At the top of the list of those attracting words is the word “new”.
You might ask, after all these years what can be new about Coke? It might only be a new size, design, offer or slightly new ingredients - but that is irrelevant – the main point is that it is new! Somewhere deeply embedded in the human psyche is a love of the new, and a boredom/antipathy for the old (1).
Is it not remarkable that nothing seems as irrelevant as yesterday’s newspaper (which is today’s classic fish wrapping). And what is old? These days, it boggles the mind in the fast paced internet media era, a Yahoo headline may have a shelf life of about 30 minutes. (And I thought 40 years was young!)
It is not only a Madison Avenue thing. The intellectual world realizes the value of new. One cannot earn a Phd without a novel thought, theory, invention or analysis. Nor is the fascination with new limited to the secular world.
The pursuit of the new or chiddush is a vaunted one in the Jewish world. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Torah scholarship is a chiddush Torah – a Torah novella which creates a whole new perspective on aged wisdom. A chiddush might allow us to reevaluate a piece of knowledge in a completely different manner. Perhaps it will explain a difficult Rambam, oft misunderstood laws; better yet, it will allows us to extrapolate to new scenarios that have not yet been placed under the halachic microscopic.
Arguably, the leading school of Torah thought, the Brisker approach, is predicated upon a revolutionary system of categorization/analysis that is scarcely 100 years old; a fairly new structure in a society that has been learning Torah for about 3300 years.
One might even leap to say that chiddush, the act of developing new approaches, is a form of Divine imitation. God, we pray daily is mechadeish b’chol yom tamid – constantly renews His world. Chassidic thought (also a relatively new development in Jewish History) teaches that the act of creation is constantly being renewed, such that the act of destruction requires nothing more than ceasing creation. Thus finding the new becomes a sacred activity of clinging to our Creator.
But not all that is new need appear as new. (In other words, let us present a new notion about new)
The Hebrew word for new, Chadash appears four times in the Torah. Three of the four times, the word is descriptive. Two of those three times appear in our parsha, Shoftim (2). The context: the draft exemptions for a milchemes reshus (a permissible war). The four famous exemptions are those men that within the previous year (1) established a new marriage, (2) planted a new vineyard and (3) built a new home. The fourth appears to occupy a category of its own and exempts those that are afraid. In the opinion of R. Yossi Haglili, we are not talking about primal fear, but spiritual fear – those that are afraid of sins that they possess.
So much Torah can be said here. What do these categories represent? What link might there between the first three and the fourth category? Are these mandatory exemptions (3)?
Here’s an apparent technical detail that ultimately looms large: What if the home is not new, but is being completely renovated? The shell or perhaps the façade remains – but the inner home is being completely gutted. Does that constitute new?
The opinion of Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud is that this is not new (4). One needs to raze the structure and start afresh (and expand (5)) in order to cop the new home exemption. There does not appear to be any dissenters in the Talmud. It would appear that renovations do not constitute a new home.
Remarkably, Rambam(6) argues and claims the new home exemption applies even for a renovation. The difficulty is that he argues on R.Yehuda the Tanna (a Mishnaic sage). Rambam, as great as he is, does not have license to argue on a Tanna – unless he has some Talmudic support. There appears to be no basis for Rambam!
R. Yosef Chaim of Baghdadh (aka Ben Ish Chai) comes to Rambam’s defense.
He claims that if we must look at the first time the Torah uses the word chadash (7):
Vayakam melech chadash al mitzrayim asher lo yada es Yoseif
A new king came into power over Egypt, who did not know Yoseif.